How to Bleed a Country

Guatemala’s government continues to deny a genocide, violently repress activists, and undermine the rule of law. Has anything really changed since civil war ended nearly 20 years ago?

Jesús Tecú Osorio was 10 years old and living in the rural Guatemalan village of Río Negro in March 1982 when soldiers and civil defense patrollers from a neighboring village raided his community. They bound and marched 177 women and children up a steep path to a clearing and savagely raped and slaughtered them. Tecú's father had been killed weeks earlier, and his mother was murdered that day. The infant brother he tried desperately to protect was wrested from his arms and brutally killed as he watched helplessly.

Tecú was among a handful of ethnic Maya Achi children spared, only to be enslaved by those who murdered their families. Thirty-two years later, a simple white cross marks a tree in memory of the people killed in the raid. The tree bears a haunting dent created by the repeated crushing of skulls, still visible to visitors who come to pay homage to the dead.

Río Negro and 32 other villages were slated for forced eviction to make way for the Chixoy hydroelectric dam, funded by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank in partnership with successive U.S.-backed Guatemalan military regimes. The project's proponents claimed it would bring electricity and other benefits to the locals. But the promises of reasonable relocation were hollow: The gritty and squalid relocation village of Pacux offered a poor substitute for Maya Achi communities and deprived them of their ancestral ways. The residents of Río Negro resisted being illegally and forcibly displaced, and so their village was violently emptied by five massacres that, in all, killed 440 people.

In recent years, a handful of families have returned to Río Negro to reclaim their land and their history, rebuilding a small cluster of modest houses above the water line from where their ancestral homes were submerged by the dam. Although the dam was completed decades ago, the villagers still have no electricity. And despite a 2010 governmental reparations plan for those affected by the project, the communities have received nothing to help them heal and rebuild.

The eviction of Río Negro's inhabitants occurred in the midst of a "scorched earth" counterinsurgency campaign by Guatemala's military dictatorship against Marxist insurgents in the course of the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Frustrated by its inability to suppress the guerrillas, government forces increasingly targeted civilians and their communities, including those it believed were sympathetic to the rebels and standing in the way of state interests.

During the conflict, more than 200,000 people were killed and more than a million were dispossessed. The vast majority of victims were indigenous. The Guatemalan military perpetrated more than 400 massacres during the conflict and destroyed more than 600 villages. The United Nations later found that the state had committed genocide in at least four separate regions, including the area where Río Negro sits.

Yet today, 18 years after the conflict ended, hopes that the architects of state terror will be brought to justice are fading fast. On May 13, the Guatemalan Congress passed a resolution denying that genocide ever occurred. It stated, "It is legally impossible … that genocide could have occurred in our country's territory during the armed conflict." The resolution, which won the support of the vast majority of legislators present during the vote, noted that a recent, high-profile genocide trial undermined "national reconciliation." Survivors of genocide and other state repression responded with a fervent plea "that this resolution be retracted."

The congressional decree has no binding impact on the country's judiciary, but it still impugns the country's separation of powers. And its message is unmistakable: The powerful military, economic, and political sectors in Guatemala are unwilling to acknowledge and make amends for the atrocities committed by the state. The grisly internal conflict is still polarizing, and there is genuine debate in Guatemala about how to address the past. The Congress, however, is composed mostly of the country's economic and political elite and is not representative of the general population -- including the indigenous majority whose communities were systematically destroyed.

Sadly, the decree is only one piece of a growing problem: Guatemala's once-tentative progress toward reconciling with its bloody past has suffered other alarming setbacks in recent months.


Guatemala's war and the silence and impunity that shroud it must be contextualized in the country's colonial and post-colonial legacy. Writer Eduardo Galeano described the Open Veins of Latin America -- that is, centuries of plunder, social exclusion, and crushing economic deprivation. It was against this historical backdrop of economic and social injustice that Jacobo Arbenz won an overwhelming majority of the vote in 1950 on a progressive platform, including his centerpiece of agrarian reform. But the land expropriation and social mobilization that followed threatened powerful U.S. geopolitical and economic interests, and Arbenz was ousted in a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954. By 1960, simmering conflict had escalated into armed insurrection, and a cycle of resistance and repression intensified until 1982, when José Efraín Ríos Montt's 17-month rein comprised the bloodiest years of violence.

Guatemala's conflict formally ended in 1996 with a series of agreements outlining social, economic, and political reforms, collectively termed the Peace Accords. Among its mandates was the creation of the Commission for Historical Clarification, a truth commission, which collected harrowing testimony and concluded that conditions of exclusion and inequality had been reinforced by authoritarian rule -- and that those conditions should be dismantled in order to achieve lasting peace and justice. Moreover, shortly after the final accord was signed, Congress passed the Law of National Reconciliation, an amnesty statute covering political crimes but explicitly excluding torture, genocide, and other violations of international law.

These were all positive signs that Guatemala wanted to cope openly and fairly with its violent past and build a better future. But today, almost two decades after the conflict ended, Guatemala is still afflicted by violence, corruption, impunity, pervasive poverty, inequality, racism, and a fragile democracy. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous leaders, environmentalists, lawyers, judges, and others are at grave risk of intimidation and violent repression.

Amid this crisis, just over a year ago the global community hailed the conviction of Ríos Montt for committing genocide and crimes against humanity. Judge Yassmin Barrios electrified the courtroom as she read the court's verdict convicting Ríos Montt for the deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixil men, women, and children during the military's brutal rampage calculated to destroy the indigenous communities that the military presumed were sympathetic to the insurgents. The campaign included murder, rape, torture, slaughtering animals, burning houses and crops, and desecrating sacred sites. After attempting to block the trial through an endless series of procedural challenges, Ríos Montt's defense team argued that culpability did not ascend the chain of command and that any wrongdoing was solely in the province of his field commanders. That argument was powerfully repudiated by both military documents and Ríos Montt's own words and video images from 30 years earlier, in which he claimed to control the military.

Unfortunately, however, in a signal of a backslide of Guatemala's commitment to peace and justice, the verdict was annulled 10 days later in a widely questioned ruling by the Constitutional Court. The trial is now scheduled to start up again in January 2015, though it seems increasingly unlikely that Guatemala can muster the political will to send Ríos Montt or any of the authors of the genocide and other state violence to jail.

Subsequent signs that justice will remain elusive have been inauspicious. Guatemala's internationally acclaimed attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who helped pave the way for Ríos Montt's indictment and made real progress against impunity and corruption, was ousted in May. Many observers believe that Paz y Paz ran afoul of the elite in her steadfast defense of human rights and commitment to ending impunity for the country's wartime atrocities. Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, was pushed from office. Amid claims of corruption and manipulation, President Otto Pérez Molina selected her replacement: a lawyer, Thelma Aldana, with no prosecutorial experience who is closely aligned with entrenched economic and military elites and who has openly criticized Paz y Paz's tenure.

Moreover, the mandate of the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, widely credited with ferreting out corruption and impunity in the country, will not be renewed after its term ends in September 2015. And Barrios, the courageous judge who oversaw the contentious genocide trial, was sanctioned for her conduct during the proceedings at the behest of powerful interests.

Other powerful figures have evaded a reckoning as well. Allegations that Pérez Molina (who took office in January 2012 after an "iron fist" campaign) was himself a war criminal have long circulated among human rights advocates. Evidence includes video footage of Pérez Molina, who served as a military commander under the nom de guerre Tito Arias, standing over the battered bodies of insurgents who had reportedly been tortured prior to their extrajudicial killing. Ríos Montt's trial provided a more public airing of accusations against the president: Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former Army mechanic, elicited gasps when he testified that Pérez Molina had instructed soldiers to destroy villages and execute villagers even as they fled.

rez Molina, however, supported prominent signatories to a letter alleging that genocide charges against the military were fabrications that imperiled peace and stability in the country.


Meanwhile, present-day development projects, often funded by transnational companies, evoke the enduring anguish of people from places like Río Negro. Mining projects face vociferous community opposition, particularly from indigenous populations whose land is under threat, but this is often met with repression. Resistance against El Tambor mine, run by the Nevada-based mining company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, developed into an organized, peaceful anti-mining blockade that lasted for two years. But the mining company's patience wore thin, and on May 23, heavily armed Guatemalan military officers descended on the occupation, dispensing tear gas and violently evicting the unarmed protesters. They injured at least 20 civilians.

Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian company, is being sued for human rights abuses associated with its Fenix mine project; the company's security guards stand accused of murdering anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich in 2009, in an unprovoked attack, leaving his widow to raise their five children in their impoverished Maya Q'eqchi community. Another man was shot and paralyzed, and 11 women accuse the mine's guards of raping them.

Proponents of these development projects, which also include sugar cane and palm plantations, tout their benefit for local communities. But these claims are belied by reality. For instance, under Pérez Molina, companies pay the government only 1 percent of the value of the minerals extracted from their projects, little of which trickles down.

The transformative reconciliation envisioned by Guatemala's peace process has utterly failed to materialize. The country demonstrates the difficulty in achieving accountability when entrenched interests refuse to relinquish their tight control over the machinery of economic and institutional power. In other words, the forces that engendered misery during the country's conflict continue to do the same today. Without justice, democratization, and accountability, resources will continue to be seized, lives threatened, and communities marginalized.

The veins of Guatemala will continue to bleed.

The author's legal clinic, along with other organizations, has filed an appeal with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking reparations for Chixoy dam survivors.

Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Bergdahl Bargain Was Just the Beginning

Obama swapped five Taliban for Bowe Bergdahl. What will he trade for the three other Americans being held in Afghanistan?


This story has been updated. 

The Obama administration's controversial decision to swap five senior Taliban figures for the military's lone prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, is putting new pressure on the White House to do more to free the three other American citizens who have been missing in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years but have drawn little attention in Washington.

On Wednesday, the family of an American woman captured with her Canadian husband in Afghanistan in October 2012 released two videos the family said were received last year in which the couple asked the U.S. government to help get them released.  Members of Caitlin Coleman's family said they released the videos now in a bid to bring attention to their daughter's captivity in the wake of the release of Bergdahl.

The Associated Press reported that the videos offer "the first and only clues" about what happened to Coleman and her husband Joshua Boyle after they disappeared from a mountainous region near Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The AP, which first reported on the existence of the videos, cited government officials as saying they appeared to be authentic but it was not clear when or where they were made. Coleman was expected to have had a baby just a few months after she was captured; although she refers to her child in the videos, no baby appears in either. That child would be an American citizen.

"I would ask that my family and my government do everything that they can to bring my husband, child and I to safety and freedom," Coleman said in one of the videos. The couple were seen as thrill-seeking adventure-tourists who had travelled in other dangerous areas in the past.

"It would be no more appropriate to have our government turn their backs on their citizens than to turn their backs on those who serve," the AP quoted Patrick Boyle, a Canadian judge and the father of Joshua Boyle.  

The other American civilian thought to be in captivity is Warren Weinstein, 72, a government contractor who was doing work in Pakistan when he was kidnapped in August 2011. It was unclear from government officials Monday what the status of these Americans was or if active discussions were taking place to secure their release.

In a letter to President Obama Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a California Republican, demanded to know why they weren't part of the deal in which Washington agreed to send five detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to Qatar in return for Bergdahl's release. Bergdahl, 28, had been held by militants since wandering off his tiny outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

"My understanding is that three other Americans remain in custody of militants aligned with the Taliban," Hunter wrote. "Should this still be the case, I would like to know why these individuals were not included in the negotiation that resulted in the release of five detainees from Guantánamo Bay." Hunter also urged the president to "expedite and exhaust ongoing lines of effort" to ensure the return of the three Americans, but was careful to stipulate that it should not be done by releasing additional detainees from Guantánamo Bay. There was no immediate response to the letter from the White House.

The deal, which has attracted growing criticism in recent days, has also raised new questions about the status of the other three Americans and whether the United States might part with additional detainees to secure their release. Upon hearing of the prisoner swap, the Weinstein family released a statement saying they were happy for the Bergdahls but hoped it would renew efforts to secure the release of their husband and father, grandfather and father-in-law. Weinstein has been held in Pakistan for more than 1,000 days, the statement said. The last "proof-of-life video" was provided to the United States in December, but it shows an ailing Weinstein who will turn 73 in July.

"Warren has dedicated his entire life to working on development and humanitarian aid projects that have improved the lives and livelihoods of countless people around the world," the statement said. "Like all families with loved ones held in captivity, we are desperate for his release before it's too late."

Bergdahl's release also raised questions about other Americans in captivity, including: U.S. contractor Alan Gross, currently held in a Cuban prison; former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who disappeared from Iran's Kish Island while on a CIA mission; and Kenneth Bae, a South Korean with U.S. citizenship convicted by North Korea for trying to overthrow the government. When asked if the prisoner exchange had any implications for their release, the State Department emphasized the importance of Bergdahl's service in the military, a factor that distinguishes his situation from Weinstein's as well.

"It's worth repeating, Sergeant Bergdahl ... is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said. "That obviously is a unique circumstance. In any case, whether it's Alan Gross or Kenneth Bae or others who are detained American citizens, we take every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure their return home to the United States."

Despite the euphoria of having Bergdahl back safely in American hands -- the missing soldier is currently at a U.S. military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany for unknown reasons -- there has been much criticism of the swap. Republicans have derided Obama for in effect trading the five detainees for just one American prisoner of war. In addition, conservatives are arguing that the United States has set a dangerous precedent that could trigger kidnappings of other American service members. And it amounts to a violation of the oft-repeated American mantra that the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists, they say.

The mysterious nature of Bergdahl's disappearance from a U.S. military base in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2009, in which it appears he may have wandered off the base or deserted his unit, feeds the storyline that the White House's play was ill-advised.

"I would not have made this deal," Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona and a frequent critic of the Obama White House, told Politico. McCain, a former POW himself, said he "would have done everything in my power" to repatriate Bergdahl, but that he would have stopped short of risking the lives of American troops to bring him back. "There's some really damning things about the reaction of the military on this," he said. That said, McCain added, "it's done."

Some troops also feel deep ambivalence about Bergdahl's return. The facts about his disappearance that day remain murky. But if reports are true that he left voluntarily, perhaps to walk from Afghanistan to India in what could amount to deserting his unit, troops who live by a credo to "never leave a man behind" may begin to doubt if it was all worth it. 

Many veterans have been far more direct. Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and was among the troops detailed to search for him, wrote in the Daily Beast that troops had been told to keep their mouth shut about what they really thought about Bergdahl's disappearance. Now that he is free, Bethea wrote, the truth can be told: "And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down."

Critics have also seized on the specific Taliban figures included in the deal, many of whom held senior posts in the militant group, arguing, in essence, that the United States paid too high a price for Bergdahl. The freed prisoners are Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former governor of Herat province described by the Pentagon as "an early member of the Taliban" who was captured in January 2002; Norullah Noori, who served as the governor of Balkh province in the Taliban regime and played a role in coordinating the fight against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, according to the Defense Department; Mohammad Fazl, who commanded the main force that fought the Northern Alliance in 2001 and served as chief of army staff under the Taliban regime; Abdul Haq Wasiq, the deputy chief of the Taliban regime's intelligence service, which was led by a relative; and Mohammad Nabi Omari, formerly a minor Taliban official in Khost province.

Psaki said Monday that the deal brokered by the Qatari government included special assurances about the detainees that included banning them from leaving the country for a year and regularly sharing information about them with the United States. Beyond that, Psaki said, "I can't discuss all of the special assurances."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, facing skeptical questions about the deal, said the decision was "backed by an ethos that says we don't leave our men and women in uniform behind."

"It was absolutely the right thing to do for the commander in chief, for this administration, to take action to secure his release, the last prisoner of war from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," Carney said.

While most experts agree that negotiating with terrorist actors such as the Taliban can involve trade-offs to U.S. national security, many differ on the severity of the risk. 

"There is a cost to showing terrorist organizations that there is a benefit to capturing soldiers," said Seth Jones, associate director at the Rand Corporation. "But I actually think U.S. soldiers are pretty threatened in general." 

He emphasized that many countries, including Britain, France, and Israel, negotiate with terrorist groups in order to free them from captivity.

Others point out that while the United States occasionally engages in discourse with terrorist groups, it rarely offers rewards in situations where U.S. hostages are involved. "The U.S. is pretty tough," said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. "Certainly compared to many European countries." In 2004, for instance, the Italian government paid a large sum of money for the release of four of its people who were seized in Fallujah, a move that angered Washington for fear that it would incentivize future kidnappings.

She emphasized that the U.S. government typically favors punishing hostage takers rather than rewarding them. "Not only does the U.S. not typically offer carrots to win the return of hostages, it applies a lot of stick," she said, referring to instances where American citizens or soldiers were kidnapped or taken hostage in Afghanistan, which she has studied extensively. "Every example I saw prompted the focus of tremendous resources on locating the hostage, which led to increased intelligence on militant networks, raids, a lot of people get[ting] killed.... It imposes significant costs on hostage takers."

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